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The ivory-billed woodpecker is officially extinct, and it strikes a chord in Knoxville
Clinging to a maple in the bayou, Jim Tanner finally had the rare nestling in his grasp.
He fitted it with a numbered leg band and placed the bird back in its hole high off the ground.
But true to its seldom-seen self, the juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker squirmed free and fluttered to the base of a giant maple tree in a southern Louisiana swamp owned at the time by the Singer Sewing Machine Co.
The year was 1936, and Jim Tanner was in the midst of doctorate research at Cornell University funded by the Audubon Society as part of a push to prevent the pending extinctions of multiple bird species, including the California condor, roseate spoonbill, whooping crane and ivory-billed woodpecker. Eighty-five years later, the regal woodpecker would be the only one grounded for eternity.
In the heat and rain of mucky, gassy bayous, Tanner compiled data on the range, population, habitat and prevalence of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He camped for weeks at a time in the swamps of the birds’ original range.
On this day, his only goal was to band the bird but he rushed down the tree and picked up the agitated but uninjured woodpecker.
He also wanted photographs.
Tanner took advantage of the moment.
He placed the bird upon the shoulder of an accompanying and accommodating game warden for 14 shots from his Leica.
They were probably the first, and perhaps the last, photographs of a juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker photographed by Tanner in its natural habitat. He named the bird Sonny, and he was the only known member of the species to be banded with a number.
The regal, smart, athletic bird, which peaceably flew over its small slice of Earth for some 10,000 years, was declared extinct last month by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Twenty-two other species also qualified for removal from the Endangered Species List — in the worst possible way.
The ivory bill inhabited the swamps of the Deep South, far removed from Rocky Top, but old visages of the departed were found in Little Switzerland in South Knoxville. The work of Tanner, who would go on to complete a rich ecological research career at the University of Tennessee, has been memorialized by a talented East Tennessee science writer.
And the Southern Appalachian region has other long-gone kinships with species that vanished from the Earth a long time ago.
Is the bald eagle's remarkable comeback fading down the stretch?
(Part one in a series)
It was a damp morning in early spring 2005 when Paul James and I met Linda Claussen at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge along the French Broad River in east Knox County. Heavy rains had fallen through the night, but the clouds were beginning to break. As we walked down Kelly Lane toward the river the vocalized yearnings of thousands of chorus frogs could be heard singing from the soppy floodplain along the river. Spring was definitely here.
The refuge itself was the brainchild of Linda’s late husband, Pete. In the late 1990s, he formed the Seven Islands Foundation, a privately owned land conservancy, and began setting aside property to be protected and restored to a variety of natural habitats. Most of the acreage had recently been fescue pasture maintained for grazing livestock and hay production.
Seven Islands State Birding Park is now the refuge the Claussens imagined 20 years ago. What typically strikes the casual visitor is the overall lay of the land because the narrow roadway opens up to a dramatic sylvan panorama with the Great Smokies off in the distance. It’s an excellent place to view the valley, but in early 2005, we were there for more than just a tour of the idyllic property, Linda was enthused for another reason. Of course, being enthused was an everyday occurrence for her; but on this day, she had something truly remarkable to show us.
Perhaps the wide river or the pastoral remoteness of the location itself attracted the refuge’s newest residents, for we had only walked about 10 minutes down the paved rural roadway when I spotted the first white head. We were at least 300 yards away, but its form was unmistakable. An adult bald eagle was perched on a bare sycamore branch 40 or 50 feet above the swirling water. It was looking upstream over the rich bottom land, surveying its territory. The regal raptor was not alone, for behind it, high in another sycamore, was a classic stick nest as big as a household stove, except conical, like a funnel. A second eagle hunkered down in the nest, incubating.
Much to my companions’ surprise, I whooped with the zeal of an 8-year-old. As the crow flies, Seven Islands is slightly less than 12 miles northeast of my Chapman Ridge home, practically my backyard. The nascent refuge had proven the wisdom to the “Field of Dreams” adage: “If you build it, they will come.”
'Lord God Bird' of lore, a sad reminder of what we have lost
We stood agape. Before us, on a white countertop as big as a ping pong table, lay 17 dead ivory-billed woodpeckers. They were museum specimens neatly arranged in two groups: nine males and eight females, all lined up like ears of corn in separate wooden trays. Each had a paper label attached to a leg with handwritten notation of when and where it had been collected; most seemed to date from the late 1800s. Being in the presence of so many rendered us reverently speechless.
The Knoxville History Project’s Paul James and I were in the cellar of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History at the time. Surrounding us were row after row of 10-foot, pale-green metal cabinets, lockers with wooden drawers filled with museum specimens. In addition to the 17 Campephilus principalis organized in the wooden trays before us, there was also one lone male mounted on a log for display purposes. All eighteen are part of the more than 640,000 avian specimens housed at the museum, which is in the nation’s capital cattycornered to the Washington Monument.
“We receive anywhere between one and 4,000 new specimens a year,” remarked the museum’s curator of birds at the time James Dean. “Many are donated by families that discover ‘grandfather’s collection’ stored in the attic.”
Call it fortuitous. When Paul arranged the meeting, the ivory-billed woodpecker was this country’s most ethereal bird; although not officially pronounced extinct it had last been documented in the swamps of Louisiana over 60 years ago. Contemporary field guides no longer include the ivorybill, America’s largest woodpecker, for they have been written off as being eliminated long ago. In the 1800s, when folks caught a fleeting glimpse of an ivory-bill they’d gasp, saying, “Lord God, what a bird,” or simply, “Lord God Bird!” So, how could this magnificent bird, black-and-white, crow-sized bird with a loud “kient, kient-kient, kient” vocalization go undetected in our modern world?